With its beautiful stark blue cover, the Fitzcarraldo Edition of ‘Flights’ doesn’t give away much about the book’s content. The blub, starting with the sentence ‘Flights, a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy, is Olga Tokarczuk’s most ambitious to date’ is scarcely more helpful, especially if, like me, you have no prior familiarity with Tokarczuk’s work for comparison.
I’ll try to be a bit more precise with this blog post, though it won’t be easy. ‘Flights’ is indeed ambitious, an intricate patchwork of short fiction, travel writing, philosophical musings and as it says on the cover, details of human anatomy. There is probably something clever going on in the structure of the book too; perhaps it echoes the precision of the sketches made by Philip Verheyen, the seventeenth century anatomist and surgeon who dissected and drew pictures of his amputated leg in an attempt to understand the phantom pain which afflicted him. I can imagine that the tonal contrasts and varying chapter lengths are a reflection of the ‘fanciful arrangements’ of his contemporary, Frederik Ruysch, famous for his developments in anatomical preservation and dioramas made up of body parts. For the record, I hadn’t even heard of these men before reading Tokarczuk; ‘Flights’ is the kind of book that leaves you desperate to show off your new-found knowledge of the dark, morbid history of anatomy and embalming.
The book is more than a collection of historical oddities however. At its heart is the self-contained short story that shares a title with the book; the tale of a woman’s descent into a modern hell as she emotionally and spiritually loses her way, departing from her normal routine as a carer for her disabled son and wife to her traumatised husband to live an underworld existence on the metro system of an unnamed post-Soviet city. The pathos of her situation and the frightening realism of her nightmarish existence are beautifully evoked, anchoring the intellectual ambition and literary playfulness of the chapters that surround it.
‘Flights’ is thoughtful and intelligent, dancing across time and space to weave together its disparate narratives of migration and permanence, of preserving and forgetting. It’s not the kind of book that can be easily summarised, but the fluid prose (translated by Jennifer Croft) and sensitively explored themes clearly show how such ambition can pay off.